In 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the break-in at Democratic headquarters–the scandal’s seminal crime–the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, Katharine Graham, insisted it was not the Post that toppled Nixon.
“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said on that occasion. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”
In 2005, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in a column: “Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”
Still, the notion that the Post was decisive in Wategate’s outcome pops up occasionally. Political writer Dana Milbank, for example, referred in a column early this year to how the newspaper “took down a president.”
And yesterday, a blog item at the Post online site asserted that the newspaper’s Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, had brought Nixon down. (Update: The item, an essay, was published Sunday, December 11, in the book section of the Post.)
“I just re-watched ‘All the President’s Men,’ which I do every year or so, and, every time, I marvel at how interesting Woodward and Bernstein’s lives were at The Post, and how well the film explains the reporting process, its doggedness and randomness, and how great an excuse it is to get out in the world and ask every seemingly obvious question you can think of (What books did the man check out?), because you never know, you might bring down a government that has it coming.
“When I watch that movie,” the writer added, “I also think about how mundane my own ‘writing life’ can be.”
As it often is for journalists.
As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong:
“The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office” in 1974.
Even so, that interpretation has become the dominant popular narrative of Watergate–a David vs. Goliath storyline in which the courageous reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of the Nixon administration.
The movie All the President’s Men is a central reason the heroic-journalist trope lives on.
All the President’s Men, which starred Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, was released in April 1976, as the wounds of Watergate had slowly begun to close.
“The movie,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “suggested their reporting was more hazardous than it was, that by digging into Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein exposed themselves to not insignificant risk and peril.
“To an extent far greater than the book, the cinematic version of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.”
The effect, I add, “was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”
And it has become a particularly tenacious and defining media-driven myth.
Recent and related:
- In Wikileaks, a hint of Watergate? Not so much
- Didn’t: A Watergate primer
- ‘Follow the money’: A made-up Watergate line
- That made-up Watergate line resonates abroad
- Jimmy Carter fumbles Watergate history
- The Watergate myth: Why debunking matters
- One paragraph, three myths
- Invoking media myths to score points
- Some snarky history from WaPo
- Mythbusting at the Smithsonian
My thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to this post.